A Lesson in Education Reform
The rhetoric about education reform has been pretty enflamed at the legislature this year, as politicians railed about teachers who can’t be fired, and teachers moaned about politicians with their hair on fire, and everybody puzzled over why the kids in our public school don’t do as well as they should. Or, as one legislator said, as good as they should. (This will be a grammar question on the next PAWS test.)
But when the House Education Committee gathered last night to have a look at two Senate-passed education “accountability” bills, it was, as Chairman Matt Teeters (R-Lingle) said, “a love fest.” The legislators were happy. The Wyoming Education Association (teachers) was happy. The Department of Education was happy. This reporter may have been the only grumpy person in the room, and that’s because I’ve got a head cold.
The effort to end tenure for teachers (Senate File 52), and let school districts fire them for any reason, even their hair color, was rebuffed. What’s left is a bill that sets up a system to measure student performance and judge what kind of progress students and schools are making (SF 70) and a bill that would tie student success, and failure, to the teachers responsible (SF 146). In other words, teachers can still get a “continuing contract” after three years teaching, but they can be fired for specific, job-related reasons, including failing to help students progress.
Legislators gave credit to the failed tenure bill for getting people stirred up and thinking – but most of them, including Senate Education Chairman Hank Coe (R-Cody), who was a sponsor, said they never especially wanted to go there. Perhaps the biggest contributor to the bills now likely to pass is Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie), whose wife is a teacher, and who insisted the dismissal of teachers be tied to objective assessments of classroom success. He also argued that sometimes effective teachers are not the most popular with administrators and parents, and they needed some protection; otherwise, who would choose to become a teacher?
“We don’t want to devise a system to weed out five percent (studies estimate anywhere from 2 to 5 percent of teachers are unsuccessful in the classroom),” Nicholas told the House committee, “and then find out your best people don’t want to get into the profession.”
There is still the question of just how student success will be “objectively” measured in Wyoming – the bills set up a process for assessment and accountability, but the actual assessment tools are not firm – the state’s much-revised, much-criticized PAWS test is hardly viewed as fool-proof. And the state Department of Education, and new chief Cindy Hill, have not contributed much to the accountability models – yet they’ll have to carry out these new requirements.
But the debate was serious and substantial, and instead of leaving Cheyenne with the residue of finger-pointing and ill will, educators hopefully leave the Capitol with a sense that their value was recognized and their profession respected.
Now for the part that really matters. Back to the classroom, folks.